Penguins more relieved than happy about moving on
Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik (R) is embraced by teammates Evgeni Malkin (L) and Tyler Kennedy (C) after his overtime goal against the New York Islanders during their Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference quarter-final game in Uniondale, New York, May 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
After the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the New York Islanders in Game 4 here to even their opening-round playoff series 2-2, team co-owner Mario Lemieux stood stonefaced along with other team executives outside the dressing room.
After they won Game 6 -- and the series 4-2 -- Saturday, Lemieux allowed himself a smile as he stopped to chat with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
The mood was more relief than happiness.
This was a Penguins team which, after a couple of early-round exits the last couple of years, was under tremendous pressure.
It remains to be seen if the Pittsburgh Penguins beat more than the Islanders. Maybe they beat a few demons, too.
The hard-fought victory over the eighth-seeded Islanders, in which the Eastern Conference champs were outplayed for good stretches at even strength (the Penguins were outshot 197-167 in the series) was just the second series won by the Penguins since their Stanley Cup year in 2009.
Their last win was in the first round of the 2010 playoffs when they beat the Ottawa Senators, who turn out to be their next opponent.
The Penguins exited the playoffs in the first round the last couple of springs, crushing disappointments for a marquee franchise with the game's best player and always-high expectations.
It was particularly messy last year when they lost a high-scoring series with the Philadelphia Flyers, one in which it looked like the Penguins lost their focus and their cool.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose job might have been in jeopardy with another early exit, admitted his club looked like it was battling something other than the Islanders.
"I think we fought it a little bit, that history, and we fought it in different ways," said Bylsma. "But again, we've got to be excited to win and not (be) thinking about the past."
Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, who is tied for the post-season goal-scoring lead, with five, wasn't ready to concede the Penguins' history was a liability nor was the experience an advantage over the inexperienced Islanders.
"It's the playoffs," he said. "It's a different animal. You can't really get prepared for that. If you've been in one before, you know a little bit about what it feels like, but everything is different. Not one hockey game feels the same out there."
The Penguins certainly had a lot happen in six games.
Like last spring, No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury struggled, but unlike last year, Bylsma had the confidence to turn to his backup. Tomas Vokoun made 66 saves in winning Games 5 and 6.
It looks like Vokoun will now start against the Senators. It's funny how things work out: when Vokoun was with the Florida Panthers, Senators starter Craig Anderson was his backup from 2007-09.
The Penguins often looked overmatched against the Islanders' speed at even strength, but were saved by some less-than-ordinary goaltending by New York's Evgeni Nabokov, a sizzling power play (the Penguins went 7-for-21 in the series, tops in the playoffs; the Islanders were 14th-ranked) and some lucky bounces, like Islander Frans Nielsen deflecting a shot by Penguins defenceman Paul Martin to tie Game 6 with eight minutes to go.
"I didn't anticipate getting a goal from Paul Martin from the blueline with nobody in front," said Bylsma.
In the end, Penguins star Evgeni Malkin's play summed up the Penguins' series. He was a turnover machine one minute, brilliant the next.
Malkin's one-on-four whirl through the Islanders zone just before Martin scored was an example of the Penguins' great individual talent. He hung onto the puck while the Penguins made a line change and it wound up with Martin for what turned out to be the goal that sent the game to overtime.
There's never been a question the Penguins are a talented team, maybe the most talented in the league.
The question is the team part and, after the way they played at times against the Islanders, it lingers still.